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The enemy within. Image by Mark Nichol.

The enemy within
With the X1 small premium SUV, BMW is claiming to pioneer a new niche. But park it next to an X3 and it doesn't seem so niche.


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| First Drive | Leipzig, Germany | BMW X1 |

"If you've got a problem, yo I'll solve it," rapped last decade's most inspirational Caucasian hip-hop phenomenon. And those funky words must still ripple through the corridors of power at BMW's Bavarian HQ, because the maker seems hell bent on creating a car for every need. The X1 is its latest niche filler, a pioneering car that wraps premium soft-roading in its smallest package yet; the X1 stands alone as the very first production small premium 4x4. It's a nice, nice baby SUV.

Paradoxically though, the X1 isn't a niche car at all - according to BMW it's a car for absolutely everyone. Young people, parents and empty nesters unite: the X1 is the aspirational first step onto the Beemer SUV ladder, a school run-ready crossover, and a retirement wagon for active grandparents, all at once. But is it any good? Read our reviews and find your next car with car classifieds.

In the Metal

When the X1 was first unveiled in concept form some witnesses vocalised its apparent similarity in size to the BMW X3. Parked side-by-side, though, the junior car is markedly smaller - not massively, however, and its superior packaging means there's only a marginal drop in perceived cabin space. The exterior design is an evolution of the newer X5's, which means it shares the bigger car's purposeful stance and aggressive detailing; the X1 is an as visually appealing as any recent BMW - assuming BMW visuals appeal to you.

Sadly, the exterior grandiloquence is not mimicked in the cabin: the X1 possibly has the poorest quality interior of the maker's entire range. It's about on a par with the 1 Series, but the car's size and cost raise expectations so it feels disappointingly built down to a price. The lower level plastics, and even the instrument binnacle cowl, are all hollow, scratchy and relatively low rent. While the cabin is all arranged with BMW familiarity, familiar BMW tactility is missing.

It's a useful package though, with a big boot, plenty of leg and head space in the back, a good driving position of the 'semi-command' variety (BMW speak for 'halfway between a go-kart and a tractor') and compact dimensions for easy apex clipping on the way to the Spar. We're told its interior airiness is comparable to a first-gen X5, which is believable, and the rear bench splits 40/20/40 so the all-important ski audience can slot their sticks through the boot and into the cabin.

What you get for your Money

BMW has resisted the temptation to offer a flagship petrol model in the UK, despite releasing an xDrive28i on the Continent, and has settled on a trio of diesels comprising 18d, 20d and 23d. The latter is only available in four-wheel drive xDrive spec, and the other two as either rear-wheel drive 'sDrive' or four. As an aside, despite BMW not trumpeting this fact, we're convinced this is the first rear-wheel drive SUV ever - and when we asked the X1's project leader he couldn't think of another one. We'll try the sDrive models at a later date.

The cheapest way of getting an X1 on the drive is with an sDrive18d SE, which has 141bhp, 236lb.ft, 54.3mpg and 136g/km - not too shabby for an SUV. That'll cost 22,660, and with standard spec including 17-inch alloys (which will look tiny in the squared arches), rear parking sensors, two-zone automatic climate control and a sport steering wheel, that outlay's not too shabby for a premium SUV either. Bookending the range is the xDrive23d SE, with 201bhp, 295lb.ft, 44.8mpg and 167g/km. That'll hit 62mph in 7.3 seconds - great - but it costs 29,055, which is a more difficult pill to swallow: the cabin doesn't say 'I cost 30 grand.' The performance will lubricate the pill, however.

Driving it

BMW is well versed in making cars handle properly that probably shouldn't when you look at them - the X6, the 7 Series and the 5 Series GT most recently - and in those terms the X1 is no different; the baby SUV turns in with all the well-controlled poise you'd expect of any Beemer. However, as usual the trade off for that is a fairly wooden ride, and because no X1 will be offered with an active chassis to soften the damping, all owners are just going to have to live with it - and at this end of the market, that could be an issue.

It's not outright uncomfortable, but it really could do with an extra layer of cushioning because we expect that once it hits the UK's frisky road surfaces (on the 24th of October) its propensity to send every cobble shaking into the cabin will become grating; how many people will buy the X1 for its back road abilities? Otherwise it's spot on, though, albeit in an unremarkable way.

We drove the xDrive20d in both manual and auto forms, and it's the latter we'd recommend, firstly because it suits the nature of car and engine best, but also because we found the manual six-speeder unusually notchy. In a similar vein, a 2.0-litre diesel that's smooth and accomplished in other applications is weirdly gruff here and not that pleasant to rev. Still, its performance/economy balance can't be argued with: 48.7mpg, 153g/km and 0 to 62mph in 8.4 seconds. Those figures drop significantly if you ditch the four-wheel drivetrain, which without having tried it we can't say for certain is a good idea, but we strongly suspect it will be.

Worth Noting

When BMW first entered the contentious world of the premium SUV, some were fairly aggressive in their disdain for what was perceived as the reckless abandonment of BMW's brand values; the first X5 isn't exactly a bastion of handling purity. It proved a shrewd move, however, as has the subsequent expansion of the X model portfolio, because they account for one in every five BMWs sold. More than 1.5 million X-badged cars have found owners over the last decade. On that basis, making a pretty small one that more people can afford is a no-brainer as a business case, and despite the fact that BMW reckons it will shift around 6,500 of these per year (compared to 3,000 X3s last year), we think that might be conservative.


BMW's new X1 is a mixed bag. It looks good, drives well and is priced keenly at the lower end of the range (where most people will buy), but it's ultimately disappointing because it falls short in two important areas: its interior quality is below what we've come to expect of a BMW, and its ride will probably prove too craggy for the majority using it as an urban family car. We'd be surprised if BMW doesn't shift bucket loads though, because while it is actually notably smaller than the X3, it's spacious and appealing enough to steal sales from the bigger car - and probably from a load of other makers too. A disappointing masterstroke, then, if such a thing exists.

Mark Nichol - 25 Sep 2009

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2009 BMW X1. Image by Mark Nichol.2009 BMW X1. Image by Mark Nichol.2009 BMW X1. Image by Mark Nichol.2009 BMW X1. Image by Mark Nichol.2009 BMW X1. Image by Mark Nichol.

2009 BMW X1. Image by Mark Nichol.2009 BMW X1. Image by Mark Nichol.2009 BMW X1. Image by Mark Nichol.2009 BMW X1. Image by Mark Nichol.2009 BMW X1. Image by Mark Nichol.

2009 BMW X1. Image by Mark Nichol.

2009 BMW X1. Image by Mark Nichol.

2009 BMW X1. Image by Mark Nichol.

2009 BMW X1. Image by BMW.

2009 BMW X1. Image by Mark Nichol.

2009 BMW X1. Image by BMW.

2009 BMW X1. Image by Mark Nichol.

2009 BMW X1. Image by Mark Nichol.


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